The moon may look like a vast extraterrestrial desert, but on the molecular level, it has the potential to quench an astronaut’s thirst.
NASA scientists have discovered how future moonwalkers can use lunar chemistry to their advantage when it comes to getting a water refill. A study that simulated the chemistry that happens when the solar wind hits the moon, recently published in the journal JGR Planets, revealed that protons from the intense solar wind interact with electrons to form hydrogen atoms. That hydrogen then bonds with oxygen atoms in the silica (SiO2)-rich moon dust to form a hydroxyl molecule (OH) — a vital component of the hydrating stuff we take for granted on Earth.
If we’re going to pack up humans in a spaceship and blast them to the moon, we need to understand exactly how much potential water the moon is hiding. This is even more critical if our species is going to establish a permanent lunar base. Plasma physicists Orenthal James Tucker and William M. Farrell of NASA’s Goddard Space Center were two of the scientists who developed the simulation, with Tucker heading the research. They believe water, or at least the potential for it, isn’t so rare in space as we might believe.
“We think of water as this special, magical compound,” Farrell said. “But here’s what’s amazing: Every rock has the potential to make water, especially after being irradiated by the solar wind.”
While NASA scientists are definitely onto something by proving that hydrogen atoms and hydroxyls actually form on the moon, there is still the lingering question of how they form, even though scientists are now convinced that the force behind them is solar wind. There still is a possibility that meteors also set off these reactions when they crash into the lunar surface. The thing we can be certain of is that if NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft, Cassini (RIP), and India’s Chandrayaan-1 all found evidence of hydrogen and hydroxyls on the moon.
Just one thing. Even if we come to an indisputable conclusion about how the components of water form on our satellite, we still have to figure out exactly how to turn the moon into a water machine to keep astronauts alive on its otherwise barren surface.
“We’re trying to learn about the dynamics of transport of valuable resources like hydrogen around the lunar surface and throughout its exosphere, or very thin atmosphere, so we can know where to go to harvest those resources,” Tucker explained.
The warmer the lunar region, the less hydrogen you can expect to accumulate, since the hydrogen atoms in areas such as the moon’s equator tend to get too energized by solar radiation to stay in one place. Astronauts will have better luck harvesting hydrogen from colder regions such as the poles.
Potential for making water doesn't just stop at the moon. Any particle of exposed silica floating around in space has the potential to become “a chemical factory”, as Farrell said. Apparently, you just need a strong blast of stellar wind.
So while moon cotton might not be a thing (yet), moon water looks like it probably will.